A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Verbatim and Its Variations
"All component things in the world are changeable. Work hard to gain your own salvation."
—attributed to the Buddha Gotama
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
—attributed to Jesus of Nazareth
"Oh God, let me join the highest companions!"
—attributed to the prophet Mohammed
Let's say that the three quotes above appeared as choices on a multiple choice quiz, and the question was: Which of these is a true representation of the last words of these religious figures?
To be technically correct, you would need a fourth choice, "none of the above." That is the correct answer, because none of these estimable men, despite their many virtues, spoke English.
Of course you knew that, and you may be thinking to yourself, what a silly question. We pose it to point up the ad-hoc way in which we decide when, under what conditions, and to what degree words and meanings are fungible and when they're not. Fungible? It requires a little explanation here because we're using it in a particular way. Usually when we talk about things being fungible they're things you can touch — or as the VT definition says, goods or commodities. Fungible things are "freely exchangeable for or replaceable by another of like nature or kind in the satisfaction of an obligation." Money is fungible. When you put it in the bank, you have no expectation or requirement that the bank will return to you the same bills and coins you gave them. Grain is fungible; if a farmer deposits hers in her neighbor's silo, she needn't wait till the individual grains she stored there are sold to get money for them. Your car is not fungible; if you take it in for repairs, you expect to get the same car back.
In most contexts we take the fungibility of words and meanings for granted. We have to do this largely because they are not real things anyway; words are symbols, representations of their meanings. Meanings, in turn, are also abstractions: ideas that stand for things that may or may not have tangible existence. When our instincts tell us that we're looking at a linguistic representation that uses words or meanings interchangeable with the ones used on some other occasion, language fungibility works and there isn't a problem.
There are, however, many times when disputes arise about the validity of a particular linguistic representation. When this is the case you can nearly always hear the wheels of someone's agenda grinding in the background, and the arguments for or against the disputed language specimen often revolve around a perceived fungibility violation.
Let's take a couple of diverse examples as a place to begin.
(1) You have, in the ultrafungibility corner, a group of people who believe that their particular English translation of the Bible represents the infallible word of God or Jesus. Their conviction is that their English Bible is completely and satisfactorily expressive of sacred truth and that there is therefore no need for them to inquire of precedents, scholarship, variants, other interpretations, or original languages. It just is what it is: God's word, conveniently made available in a language that they understand. Critics of such a position — secular Bible scholars perhaps, or agnostics — declare a fungibility foul and argue that the Bible is a selective and agenda-driven collection of religious texts from an extended historical period, written in languages that are imperfectly understood today, and that modern translations are simply derivative artifacts from something that is itself an artifact — not a record of what God said, did, or decreed.
(2) Screenwriters of television or film drama develop scripts for the purposes of entertainment and supply invented dialogue to the characters in their stories in order to create what they hope their viewers will consider to be verisimilitude. When the dramas thus devised are set in a specific historical period, the screenwriters may make occasional, inadvertent slips by inserting language into the mouths of characters that was not actually in use at the time represented in the drama. Take, for example, the scripts of programs such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey, since they have been discussed in Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column here before. The screenwriters, whether knowingly or not, are assuming unlimited language fungibility by letting modern words express meanings or sentiments from an earlier time. But there arises a ruckus from the foes of unfettered fungibility, where practitioners of the modern sport of spotting anachronisms in television fiction are up in arms that invented people spout words and phrases that did not exist in the historical period that they fictionally represent.
These two linguistic phenomena are hardly comparable, you may be thinking, but they do share the element of having proponents and detractors with regard to their authenticity, and the disputes include a question of whether language fungibility works or not. In the first case, one audience of the text — Bible fundamentalists — assume complete fungibility, which detractors dispute on a number of grounds. In the second case, the authors of the text are the fungibility champions, while their critics argue that fungibility, like time, can only travel in one direction. Curiously though, no one seems to cry foul when film characters speak in a modern language they couldn't have known; everyone loves Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, the great Anglophone slave rebel of antiquity.
Another element the two cases share — and one that provides a different way of looking at the them — is the question of narrative. Here we mean narrative in its most general sense, the quality of constituting a coherent story. Language users love narratives; indeed, we construct our lives out of them. Languages love narrative too, insofar as they all have rules to ensure the coherence of narratives: that is, grammar. But no natural languages that we know of, despite the fascinating wealth of interesting features by which they represent aspects of meaning, carry inflections or other markers to indicate degrees of distance from original meaning, or any other qualifications of that relationship. In other words, language itself does not carry any markers to show how near or far a given expression is from an earlier or different one that it represents. If you want to characterize that relationship explicitly you have to use metadata — language about language, such as "translated from," "he said," "I'm paraphrasing," etc.
So is it possible or even desirable to devise sensible guidelines for determining when language strays too far from original meaning — whether via translation, paraphrase, quotation without context, or reported speech? Probably not, because the business of language is narrative, not authenticity. Questions about linguistic authenticity arise when there is a disparity in narrative requirements or aims between the creators of a text and some or all of its consumers.